Each week during the Pac-12 season, we'll try to hook up with our fellow SB Nation sites across the conference. This week we're staying up North and chatting with UC Berkeley's great SB Nation site, California Golden Blogs. Nick Kranz and boomtho were good enough to lend their time and expertise to discuss Cal's high powered offense, their improved defense, and their thoughts on the prospects of the Big Game being a really really Big Game.
Bruins Nation: In the preseason Q&A we did with CGB, Leland said that Cal had a shot at starting 4-1 or better before hitting the tough part of the schedule and aimed for 8 wins this season. Has the way Cal got to an impressive 5-0 start before losing a very close one to the AP's #3 team made you revise that sort of prediction? Have the long term goals for this season been upped by Cal fans?
Nick Kranz: I suppose we need to distinguish between goals and predictions. I think most Cal fans are holding firm on predicting an 8 win season, but what has changed is potential goals. With so many Pac-12 teams struggling relative to expectations, all of a sudden Cal has been handed an opening to compete for the Pac-12 North title, and by extension for the Pac-12 title itself. Granted, it would take a win over Stanford to even entertain the possibility, but with UCLA, USC, Oregon and Oregon State all dealing with a variety of injuries, coaching turbulence, or general underperformance, the opportunity is there. Add to that an urgency to do as much as possible while Jared Goff is still on the roster, and you have fans dreaming for more than they realistically thought was possible prior to the season.
boomtho: Personally, the start hasn't really changed my expectations. While we did get off to a 5-0 start, there were a number of very close wins that could have gone either way (UT, UW, WSU) - so, we could easily have been sitting at 4-1 or even 3-2 heading into the more difficult stretch of our schedule.
I think the long term goals remain (1) make a bowl game and (2) beat one of the California schools - just one is all we ask!
BN: Cal has been "held" to 30 points twice, and merely racked up 34, 35, 43, and 73 points in its other games. We've knew Jared Goff could rack up yards, but this offense has been more prolific than most predicted. What makes the Bears offense so good? If you were the Bruins Defensive Coordinator, what would you try to do?
Nick Kranz: It really all starts with Goff. The offensive line is solid but nobody would mistake it for dominant. With Daniel Lasco injured, the running backs have been decent but no one back has really opened eyes. The reason this offense works is because of what Jared Goff is capable of doing. His ability to get rid of the ball quickly, to deal with pressure, is what allowed Cal to survive in Seattle and Texas, and his ball placement usually gives his receivers a chance to make plays. The running game works well mostly as a change of pace when teams are worried about the passing game.
Now we just need to hope that the Jared Goff that played against Utah is a one-time aberration.
boomtho: I'd actually disagree with the premise that the offense has been more prolific than expected. In fact, I think most Cal fans think the defense has vastly outperformed expectations, while the offense has actually moderately underperformed. CGB actually did a roundtable on this subject last week
That being said, there are a few factors that go into making the Bear Raid such a powerful offense:
1) Jared Goff: He's one of the best QB's in the country, 5-INT performance against Utah notwithstanding. Except for picking up tons of yards with his feet, he does everything you'd want your QB to do. He's patient, buys time in the pocket, goes through progressions, and can make every through on the field, including ones downfield that he'll hopefully be making on Sunday one day.
2) Depth at the skill positions, especially WR: Cal doesn't have one dominant receiver in the mold of an Amari Cooper or Mike Evans, but we probably have one of the deepest WR corps in the country. In addition, there's really good balance among the WR's - we have guys that can hurt you vertically downfield and on the outside (Davis and Lawler), precise route runners that tend to play in the middle of the field (Treggs and Anderson), and a few guys filling in the cracks around them (Powe and Harris).
3) Decent run pass balance: Dykes' offense has been falsely labeled as a pass-first, pass-often offense; in contrast, unlike Mike Leach's offense, Dykes strives for balance in the run-pass game (right now we're at 48% pass to 52% run, per ESPN). Because our OL isn't the greatest, this balance is important to keep defenses from keying in on certain plays.
If I were the UCLA DC, I would try to follow the model of UW and Utah against the Bears. Those teams were able to get consistent pressure with 4 people. In addition, UW (I was out of the country for the Utah game so not 100% sure how that game played out) kept 2 safeties high for most of the game, forcing Cal to live on intermediate routes without giving up a ton of big plays. I think that is the blueprint to slow Cal down, because if you let our receivers get 1:1 on the outside without safety help, the Bears will usually win that matchup.
BN: The big question for Cal going into this year was the defense. If it simply improved this season to "bad", most felt Cal would win more than its share of shootouts, and so far, it's been more than good enough. What has been the big difference for the Cal defense this season?
Nick Kranz: Two major changes. The first is the addition of multiple new players on the defensive line (one transfer from Wake Forest, a JC transfer, a senior returning from injury, etc.) that added depth and explosiveness to a previously barren pass rush. Cal can now pressure the quarterback, which has resulted in drive killing sacks and pressure-forced interceptions.
The second major change is improved secondary play, inspired in part by getting back Damariay Drew after he missed the 2014 season, and inspired in part by improved play from Cal's cornerbacks. Darius White and Darius Allensworth aren't the 2nd coming of Deion Sanders, but they're usually in the right place and they don't give up much that's easy.
Also, I'm sure you'll hear that Cal has forced more turnovers than any other FBS team. That's partly improved play, and partly a solid dash of fumble luck. Will it continue? I dunno, but I hope so.
boomtho: I think the first change has been the turnovers. Cal is 1st in the FBS in forcing turnovers, which is kind of mindblowing to me. Second, many of the players have grown more comfortable in Year 2 of Kaufman's scheme. The coaches have talked about how they're able to coach the " how" now and not just the "what" - basically, they can focus on technique and more advanced areas because the players already understand where they're supposed to be and what their responsibilities are. Last, I'll mention the pass rush. After missing all of last year with mono, Kyle Kragen is healthy, stronger, and contributing in a big way, with 5 sacks thus far. One of the big problems with last year's secondary was them being left on an island due to lack of pressure, so the ability of Cal's front 4 to get more consistent pressure has been a big factor in the defensive turnaround thus far.
BN: Goff had a rough outing last week against a very good Utah team, throwing 5 picks. How has he responded to bad performances in the past, and is there an opportunity for the UCLA defense to take advantage of anything this Thursday?
Nick Kranz: You know, I'm having trouble coming up with a truly bad performance, with the possible exception of his freshman year against Oregon when he couldn't grip the ball in monsoon weather and was pulled because of fumble issues. Cal was in the middle of a 10 game losing streak at the time that didn't really have much to do with Goff's performance, so it's hard to say how he'll respond. Hell, playing multiple games in a row that actually matter is an entirely new experience for Goff and the entire team, at least at the college level. So I can't really say how he'll respond.
What does UCLA need to do? Well, Utah was able to combine two things: The first was a solid, consistent pass rush. Goff wasn't running for his life, but he also knew that he didn't have much time to get a pass off, so they sped up his decision making process. The 2nd thing is something that nobody else has done so far this year: Utah really blanketed Cal's receivers. Kenny Lawler was just not open very much. Bryce Treggs barely had a target until late in the game. Utah's secondary played a brilliant game. You really need both elements to stop Goff - if he has time, somebody will eventually come open. And if you get pressure without coverage, Goff will hit his hot reads.
boomtho: This year, before Utah Goff's roughest performance was against UW... where he went 24/40 for for 342 yards and 2 TD's/1 INT. That's one way of saying he doesn't have much recent experience bouncing back from a rough performance. Last year, perhaps his worst performance was also against UW, where he put up a lot of yards but threw no TDs on a day the Cal offense got blown off the field. His next game... was against UCLA, where we went 25/41 for 303 yards with 2 TD/1 INT. I think Goff will bounce back - he's talented, mentally strong, and honestly I think Utah's defense is a cut above what the rest of the conference has to offer.
BN: Who is a surprise name or two Bruin fans should watch for on the Cal roster this Thursday?
Nick Kranz: Well, it's worth looking out for Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere, who have been splitting time at running back while Daniel Lasco recovers from a hip injury. Muhammad is a track star who finally this year has learned how to translate his natural athleticism into football production by sprinkling in a little patience and vision. Enwere is more of a bruiser who can shrug off tacklers if he gets a little momentum off the line.
Lasco has played a bit for the last few weeks, and there's speculation that he might have the rust shaken off thanks to Cal's bye week. It will be interesting to see what the running back rotation looks like on Thursday.
boomtho: On offense, I'll mention Tre Watson. He entered the season as the 3rd back, but due to Daniel Lasco's continued struggles with a hip injury, he has slowly come on. He's not a pure bruiser like backup RB Vic Enwere, but instead he's more balanced - he can be a threat out of the backfield, and has pretty good agility to go along with a little power.
On defense, I'll go with Darius White. After transferring from a JUCO last year, White wasn't ready for Pac-12 play, and it showed in him getting repeatedly torched. This year, he's been our best CB by a wide margin, and I think he's got the potential to nab a pick or two off of Rosen.
BN: For Cal, I assume that the Big Game is THE game of the year every year. It's certainly one of college football's best rivalries, and considering Stanford's run the last few years I imagine the urgency to win the game is even higher than normal. Have you considered the very real possibility that the November 10th matchup could decide the Pac-12 North Division winner this year? What would you sell to guarantee a win in that circumstance?
Nick Kranz: We've been thinking about it ever since Utah pantsed Oregon the same weekend Cal beat Washington on the road and it became clear that only the Bears were in position to stop Stanford. The dirty secret of the Big Game is that it's exceedingly rare for the game to matter for both teams in the same year, so the concept that it could decide the North will likely lead to heartburn and hyperventilation even before kickoff. Cal fans are desperate enough to break a losing streak that's creeping up much too high anyway.
What would I sell? Hmm, I already sold my soul for Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, I'm running low on bargaining chips. Will the committee accept all future earnings and property of TwistNHook and his descendants, in perpetuity? I'm totally willing to give that up.
boomtho: While Cal is currently 5-1 and appears to be well positioned in the North, it's important to remember that we're just entering the difficult part of our schedule now. While it doesn't look quite as daunting as it did in Week 1, a stretch of Utah-UCLA-USC-Oregon could easily yield 4 losses and very quickly remove Cal from any kind of race to win the North. Because of that, I don't think Cal fans are really looking ahead and trying to guess at what the conference implications from Big Game might be.
That being said, you're right that Cal fans are getting antsy to grab a Big Game back after losing the last 5. Cal has its best team of the last 5 years, so there's a good deal of optimism that this year could be the year. However, Stanford has looked dominant recently (as you can attest to), so it will definitely be a tough game!
Thanks again to Nick and boomtho from California Golden Blogs for their time and thoughts. Check out their site here and you can follow CGB on twitter to get all the best news and analysis on Cal sports.